Despite a mild insecurity with shopping in grocery stores where the latin alphabet graces few labels, I was overcome with a desire to shop in Chinatown today upon seeing the perfect, sunny weather. More than picking up a few veggies, I was hoping to gather some inspiration. I have gotten into a bit of a cooking rut lately, which seems to be a consequence of farmer’s market shopping: always the same vendors, little variation from week to week. But much like a farmer’s market excursion, the Chinese groceries along Spadina Avenue offer a pleasurably ambling shopping experience without the neon lights, air conditioning and tasteless, overpackaged food that can be found at my local supermarket.
After fortifying myself on BBQ Pork steam buns, I walked into the first grocer with with the intent to buy gypsum, which is a coagulant used to make tofu. I was inspired by the tofu-making tutorial on Modern Beet, a culinary trick I would love to possess. I have been meaning to try it for weeks, but had a really hard time finding the powder. My usual supplier of tofu – the geniuses at Ying Ying Tofu – use only nigari, which is a sea water extract and the traditional coagulant for tofu-making. After inquiring with the owner, I realized that I might need industrial equipment and a degree in chemistry before I could undertake a nigari tofu process that would at all resemble Ying Ying Tofu. Until such a time, I will content myself with gypsum tofu. After locating a packet in the Chinatown grocery, I did a few laps to browse.
I picked up some sesame oil, shrimp crackers, water chestnuts and was happily reunited with Kopiko – a deeply flavored coffee candy that I consumed to excess during the period of my childhood when I lived in Indonesia. Also: fresh lotus seeds, preserved mangosteens, shrimp paste and rice sheets. Much to my surprise, I came across a bag of what seemed like goji berries.
On the few occasions when I have felt the sort of largesse required to purchase goji berries in a health food store, I have loved them. They are tart and herbal in flavor and make great additions to salads and desserts. I like to put a few at the bottom of my tea cup to grow plump as I sip or sprinkle them on top of oatmeal. They are considered a super-health food because of their high anti-oxidant content and, for this reason, retail for a ridiculous sum. But the bags I came across in the Chinatown grocery had $1.99 price stickers on them. Though the berries looked unmistakeably goji-esque to me, the labels sported different names. Part of me believed it impossible that real goji berries could cost so little, bu I bought them anyway – just in case my google searches revealed that these alternate names (‘red medlar,’ ‘lycium barbarum’) referred to goji berries. And they do! So, readers, lessons of the day for me:
1) I am the sort of sucker who believes that price correlates to value. This is especially true within the tea tree oil-smelling confines of my local health food store (which shall remain nameless).
2) You can buy goji berries for $2 on Spadina and Baldwin Streets, Toronto.
After a bit more internet sleuthing, I have read that only the goji berries from the Tibetan Himalayan foothills are purported to have the health benefits claimed. However, in my incomplete research, it seems that the only evidence to support this has to do with the long-living local population. Of course, those who live in the Himalayan foothills of Tibet where the “best” goji berries are found could enjoy longevity for any number of reasons (genetic drift, the complete absence of industrial pollutants, etc). To me, the Himalayan/non-Himalayan goji berry divide is like the Champagne/Cava divide, which is to say a divide in name and location only. I am no expert and it is entirely possible that the Himalayan soil offers the goji plant something that it does not get when grown elsewhere.
What I do know is that the berries (and everything else I bought) have jump-started my weekly cooking. I’ve concocted a list of recipes that are totally new to me and about which I am really excited. On the menu: chocolate-goji berry ice cream with Himalayan pink salt (adapted from this cupcake recipe), water chestnut and homemade tofu steamed dumplings, and bubble tea. I will report back this week with any successes and possibly wiht somemore Chinatown shopping evangelism. Switching up where you shop is the surest way to find new and exciting dishes.